In trying to expertly sum up the brilliance that is illustrated in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, I am speechless, because I feel incapable of adequately conveying to potential readers how remarkable each individual story truly is. Maybe, without going over-the-top with flattery and high flatulent gushing, this is the best down-to-earth and honest complement that I can bestow upon this genuinely remarkable literary treasure, a book of stories that most deservedly earned its 1972 National Book Award and which, has since its publication, become a true literary landmark among classics in contemporary American literature.
The majority of stories in this collection are, understandably, O. Henry Award winners and are indeed quite deserving of the accolade. The literary quality, for me, represented some of the best English prose put down on paper. The plot, theme and development of each singular story is powerfully and decisively conveyed, expressed assertively with a violent biblical and Catholic yet grace filled urgency. There is an amazing articulate religious zealotry in these stories, which are also mixed with an authentic Southern gothic component that is sometimes bizarre, to say the least. But it is mixed together in a good and edifying way. These stories are credible and digestible, minus the typical zealot's accusatory pointed finger expressing fire and brimstone judgements, a kind of do this in the name of God or else attitude of predetermination. Rather it involves choices, good and bad, and the consequences of those choices with the Divine thrown in, or, more correctly, the Divine expressed outwardly when the said character reluctantly gives his or her yes. Predetermination is involved, but each story goes deeper in layers, because right can alter wrong and change one’s destiny for the better. The latter elements are the true hallmarks of why Flannery O’Connor’s stunning fiction is so uniquely and identifiably, her own. You just know a Flannery O’Connor story when you read one.
I am, as I said before, admittedly hard pressed to pick and analyze just one story, because each one offers an electrifying jolt of intellect and depth whereby one would say, “That was a really great story.” Then after the next one was read, a reader would be even more impressed, and it would go on in that vein until the whole collection was thoroughly read through. At least that is the way is was for me. Some of the stories are really disturbing like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or are deeply touching like “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” which includes a beautifully written paragraph that is typical of O’Connor’s writing:
“Her mother let the conversation drop and the child’s round face was lost in thought. She turned it toward the window and looked out over a stretch of pasture land that rose and fell with a gathering greenness until it touched the dark woods. The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees.” Page 248.
I found that the profound passages have a tendency to be at the end of the story, as happens in the short story “Revelation” whereby an arrogant Southern woman by the name of Ruby Turpin, who is indeed quite judgmental and not just while at a doctor’s office, gets a book hurled at her by a young college coed named Mary Grace (of all names) who is there with her mother. Ruby gets physically wounded by the thrown book, but something happens inside to her soul; the violent deed of the book throwing by Mary Grace (who is the vehicle and or instrument whom God uses) is the act by which divine grace gives Ruby Turpin the conversion experience that she requires to not be the so holier-than-thou and judgmental woman that she previously was. At the end of her experience she is rewarded with a heavenly vision of unity and love that is unlike anything I have read before.
In the short story “The Artificial Nigger” there is a scene that is quite touching and upsetting where the character, Mr. Head, denies his own grandson, Nelson, as a kind of punishment but also as an act of selfishness for and against the boy, who, at the beginning of the story has a rather know-it-all air about himself. After the denial, there is a gut wrenching sense of disappointment and loss, a penetrating betrayal, a kind of parallel that, for me, resembles a scene in the Gospel where Peter denies Christ Jesus three times. It is a powerful story that really does say that actions have consequences and that, if not rectified, will linger long after the episode occurred.
These are just basic samples of the largeness of these glorious stories, and I do highly recommend them for readers. For people who are already O’Connor admirers they know what I’m talking about, as I do them. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor was a fantastic read, and I am happy this collection is in my personal library. It is great for writers, novice writers or just for folks who genuinely appreciate the value of the written word. If O’Connor never wrote her novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away) or her sundry lot of book reviews and criticism and letters (The Presence of Grace: and Other Book Reviews, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose and The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor) her literary reputation would most definitely be assured and cemented with these astonishing stories.
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